How Comfortably Can You Speak Your Mind at School?

Have you recently been in a classroom discussion where someone voiced an unpopular viewpoint? How was it received by students? By the teacher?

In general, how comfortable do you feel stating your opinions in your classes right now, especially those on hot-button issues? Can you easily disagree with classmates? Your teachers? Or do you sometimes hold back for fear that someone might criticize what you say?

In “I Came to College Eager to Debate. I Found Self-Censorship Instead.” Emma Camp, a senior at the University of Virginia, describes what she calls the “strict ideological conformity” she found. The piece begins:

Each week, I seek out the office hours of a philosophy department professor willing to discuss with me complex ethical questions raised by her course on gender and sexuality. We keep our voices low, as if someone might overhear us.

Hushed voices and anxious looks dictate so many conversations on campus here at the University of Virginia, where I’m finishing up my senior year.

A friend lowers her voice to lament the ostracizing of a student who said something well-meaning but mildly offensive during a student club’s diversity training. Another friend shuts his bedroom door when I mention a lecture defending Thomas Jefferson from contemporary criticism. His roommate might hear us, he explains.

I went to college to learn from my professors and peers. I welcomed an environment that champions intellectual diversity and rigorous disagreement. Instead, my college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity. Students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think. Even as a liberal who has attended abortion rights demonstrations and written about standing up to racism, I sometimes feel afraid to fully speak my mind.

In the classroom, backlash for unpopular opinions is so commonplace that many students have stopped voicing them, sometimes fearing lower grades if they don’t censor themselves. According to a 2021 survey administered by College Pulse of over 37,000 students at 159 colleges, 80 percent of students self-censor at least some of the time. Forty-eight percent of undergraduate students described themselves as “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with expressing their views on a controversial topic in the classroom. At U.Va., 57 percent of those surveyed feel that way.

When a class discussion goes poorly for me, I can tell. During a feminist theory class in my sophomore year, I said that non-Indian women can criticize suttee, a historical practice of ritual suicide by Indian widows. This idea seems acceptable for academic discussion, but to many of my classmates, it was objectionable.

The room felt tense. I saw people shift in their seats. Someone got angry, and then everyone seemed to get angry. After the professor tried to move the discussion along, I still felt uneasy. I became a little less likely to speak up again and a little less trusting of my own thoughts.

I was shaken, but also determined to not silence myself. Still, the disdain of my fellow students stuck with me. I was a welcome member of the group — and then I wasn’t.

Throughout that semester, I saw similar reactions in response to other students’ ideas. I heard fewer classmates speak up. Eventually, our discussions became monotonous echo chambers. Absent rich debate and rigor, we became mired in socially safe ideas.

Being criticized — even strongly — during a difficult discussion does not trouble me. We need more classes full of energetic debate, not fewer. But when criticism transforms into a public shaming, it stifles learning.

students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • What is your reaction to the article? As a student yourself, have you ever experienced any of what Ms. Camp describes? If so, what happened, and how did it affect you?

  • Do you ever “self-censor” in class for fear of disapproval from your teacher or classmates? If so, what has that been like? How do you think it has affected your learning or development?

  • Do you think your classmates often self-censor? Ms. Camp argues that “students of all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think” because of fear of backlash. Do you agree? If so, where and how do you see that? How do you feel about it?

  • Have you ever been in a meaningful classroom discussion in which divergent views on sensitive or hot-button issues were welcomed and respected? What made that discussion work so well?

  • Do you think the college classroom is a place where all ideas should be welcome, or do you think that there are certain issues or topics that should not be up for debate? If so, what, and why? Would your answer be the same for the high school classroom?

  • This Opinion piece has received over 1,600 reader comments, many pushing back against the author’s argument. Here is how one reader phrased an objection:

At bottom, her complaint is that her opinions are socially unpopular. And what would she have the University of Virginia do about that? Require that students at parties nod approvingly when conservative views are voiced? Refrain from arguing contrary positions in class so Ms. Camp feels sufficiently validated and respected? That is not how the world works, or has ever worked.

What do you think? Should a classroom discussion prepare students for “how the world works” in the sense that students should expect to have their ideas challenged? How can teachers make their classrooms places where, as Ms. Camp writes at the end of her piece, students’ ideas can be challenged, “yet challenged in ways that allow us to grow”?

Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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